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The Power of Positive Self-Talk: 4 Science-Backed Reasons Affirmations Work

Here's how to talk yourself into better mental and physical health.

As mental health issues increasingly lose their stigma, more and more people are seeking support through therapy. They're also taking their mental health into their own hands by creating self-help routines at home that enhance mental wellness.

In particular, many people use positive self-talk in the form of daily affirmations to help establish the neural pathways for more positive thinking patterns—and there's ample evidence backing up the benefits of starting such a practice. In fact, studies show that affirmations can boost both your mental and physical health by helping to reduce self-sabotaging habits.

"Affirmations can be anything from desired goals and outcomes to positive reassurances," Carli Dansky, a life coach and the founder of btrue&well, tells Best Life. "Speaking or writing positive affirmations daily can be very powerful in helping us to shift our thought patterns, thus motivating us to take action to do and be better."

Read on to learn why positive self-talk is so powerful, according to the current research.

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Affirmations really can boost your self-esteem.

Older woman looking at her reflection in a mirror.

Many people practice affirmations because they want to feel good about themselves. Research supports the notion that positive self-talk can indeed boost your self-esteem.

"Self-affirmation theory posits that people are motivated to maintain a positive self-view and that threats to perceived self-competence are met with resistance," says a 2016 study published in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience. "When threatened, self-affirmations can restore self-competence by allowing individuals to reflect on sources of self-worth, such as core values," the study states.

Feeling good about yourself is not just mental—it also has a physiological effect, the study shows. Using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), the researchers were able to track how those increased feelings of self-worth affected the brain. They observed that participants who were affirmed (compared with those who were not) demonstrated increased activity in key regions of the brain's self-processing and valuation systems.

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They help reaffirm your values.

Multi-ethnic group of people raising glasses sitting at beautiful dinner table celebrating Christmas with friends and family, copy space

A separate 2018 study published in the same journal found that performing affirmations can also help you reaffirm your core values, which can in turn make you less likely to take self-sabotaging actions.

"Simply reflecting upon an important personal value may affirm the integrity of the self-concept and reduce defensive motivations," the researchers write. "Numerous experiments have found that thinking and writing about core values reduces defensiveness in response to self-threats."

Affirmations can enhance your health.

Sporty woman standing outside in the sunshine getting healthy
NDAB Creativity / Shutterstock

Another well-documented benefit of positive self-talk is that it can enhance your health. That's because affirmations can help you keep your health goals clear, motivate you to pursue them, and reduce your chances of self-sabotage.

A 2016 study conducted by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) found that study participants who received affirming texts and practiced self-affirmation while attempting to quit smoking were more likely to quit than those who did not.

"Quitting smoking is challenging and relapse is likely. Smokers may feel threatened by temptation to smoke if they perceive an inability to meet cessation challenges," the study authors write. However, they found that "Self-affirmation—or focusing on strengths and values—can offset self-threats and promote healthier behaviors."

Ultimately, the study determined that "Smokers who self-affirm may be more successful at quitting, because temptation may be seen as less threatening to competence or self-control." In other words, the temptation remained, but those who practiced affirmations were less likely to give in to those temptations or find them destabilizing.

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They can reduce your stress levels.

Mature couple taking a walk together

If you feel a greater sense of calm after practicing your affirmations, studies suggest you're not imagining it. According to a 2013 study published in the journal Plos ONE, an emerging body of research suggests that self-affirmation may be an "effective stress management approach."

The study posits that since the goal of self affirmation is to protect one's self image, "self-affirmation can buffer threats to the self in a variety of domains, with several recent studies showing that self-affirmation can buffer stress responses to laboratory stressors and naturalistic academic stressors."

The study authors note that this may come in especially handy when you need to keep cool and perform under pressure. "Collectively, this work suggests that if self-affirmation can reduce stress, it may also promote problem-solving performance under high stress conditions," the study states.

Here's how to get started.

woman doing yoga affirmations

Daily affirmations won't cure everything that ails you, but they can change your perspective on the hardships you face and help bolster your strength to get through them.

The key to starting a daily affirmations routine is to first identify which negative thinking patterns are holding you back. Then, come up with a few short statements that challenge those negative thoughts with more positive alternatives.

A successful affirmation will be grounded in your real life, while also feeling encouraging or aspirational. Speaking with The Washington Post last year, Natalie Dattilo, PhD, a clinical psychologist with Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, described what a useful affirmation might look like: "It doesn't feel inauthentic, and it's moving you in the direction of what you'd like to do, how you would like to be and how you'd like to feel," she said.

Over time and with enough repetition, you may find that your positive outlook becomes second nature.  However, if instead you find that affirmations fall short, there's no shame in asking for help. Speak with a mental health professional to learn more about how to take control of your well-being using other tools.

Best Life offers the most up-to-date information from top experts, new research, and health agencies, but our content is not meant to be a substitute for professional guidance. When it comes to the medication you're taking or any other health questions you have, always consult your healthcare provider directly.

Lauren Gray
Lauren Gray is a New York-based writer, editor, and consultant. Read more
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